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  • Oxytocin and Conformity – Public and Private

    Posted by David Foster on April 29th, 2017 (All posts by )

    An interesting article by Robert Sapolsky distinguishes between public conformity, in which subjects change their opinions to be more agreeable to the crowd, and private conformity, where the individual actually adopts the crowd’s opinion as his own.

    Sapolsky describes a classic experiment for studying conformity, in which solitary subjects are first asked something with an obvious answer such as, “Here’s a line.  Which of these three other lines is it closest to in length?”  Then a subject is asked the question which amid a group of other “participants,” actually confederates of the researcher who have been instructed to give a unanimously wrong answer. When these false answers were given first, the real study subjects would agree with that answer up to three-quarters of the time.

    Neuroscience research suggests that “the discovery that everyone disagrees with you turns out to typically activate the amygdala and the insular cortex, brain regions associated with anxiety, disgust, and unease.”

    In another experiment, which involved watching a documentary and then being quizzed about it, subjects were divided into two groups.  One group was administered oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddling hormone,’ which is said to promote bonding and affiliation in couples and also among social groups.  The other experimental group got a placebo.  Among the placebo group, about 2/3 conformed to the crowd opinion…but of these, about half reverted to the correct answer when they were on their own again.  Among those who got oxytocin, there was a 15% increase in the rate of public conforming, but no increase in the rate of private conforming.

    I’m not sure how definitive a 15% increase really is given the sample size of only 92 subjects, but it is consistent with what has been frequently claimed about the effects of oxytocin.  It is slightly comforting (again, to the extent that these results are validate-able)  that the increase in public conformity does not drive a corresponding increase in private conformity.  Only slightly comforting, though–the mob can still burn you at the stake for witchcraft even though most of its members privately believe that there is no such thing.)

    This is obviously connected to the idea of the preference cascade.  Failure to understand this concept is surely one reason why Hillary Clinton and her minions were so taken aback by Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

     

    I remember in one of the episodes of the TV series The World at War, a German man talked about the temptation to conform.  He had been strongly anti-Nazi, but admitted that he had felt a strong emotional pull to join the rallies and be a part of the the movement.  (He said it much more eloquently than the foregoing sentence would suggest, but the series doesn’t seem to be available on-line at the moment so I can’t quote him directly.)  And just the other day, I saw a blog post whose author, after critiquing the craziness of the extreme “progressives,”  went on to say:

    I’m going to be very real with you for a moment, and take off my hat has a blogger, an author, and whatever else I may be, and just speak to you as a man.

    This could have been me.

    Does that surprise you? There was a time I skirted so close to falling under this spell, it would shock you. I felt the guilt, the social pressure, the desire for conformity. Despite the terrible weight such ideology carries on the mind, it is absurdly easy to fall into it. Every day we are assaulted by the agitprop. It is so easy to just say “yes, it’s all my fault, I will submit and obey.”

    It will bring momentary relief, because you will no longer have to fight a narrative that is bombarded upon you 24 hours a day. That mental effort is, itself, rather exhausting on the mind. But if you accept the chains, that is a far greater weight, one that will destroy you. The chains are seductive. They call, because of the enormous weight of social power behind them.

    The pressure is both great and subtle. Imagine a conversation about the weather, innocent enough on its own. A friend might say “wow, that global warming sure is kicking in today!” You’ve a few choices here. You can challenge him, but the immediate counter is likely to be something like “well, 99% of scientists agree, sooooo….” The implication, of course, is that you are stupid for disagreeing with 99% of scientists (whether or not there is any truth to that claim, either). You could remain silent because it’s easier. Or you could just give in, regardless of the truth of the matter, because it’s easiest. Meanwhile, if you counter your friend successfully, you may be down a friend by the end of the night.

    So whether or not a lot of folks believe this thing, soon consensus is reached, as much to peer pressure as anything else. Then it is, further, easier to agree on welfare, tax policy, affirmative action, black lives matter, social justice, etc… Each one has a superficial rhetorical argument which sounds nice, and which has enormous media programming and social pressure behind it.

    A thousand such chats happen every day, both in the real world, and the social media world. The sum total of which is designed to move you, via peer pressure and Weaponized Empathy, toward self-hatred, and intense personal guilt for things which you neither did, nor were capable of preventing.

    Soon a man might find himself agreeing with lunatic propositions that all Republicans are literal Nazis, and Donald Trump is worse than Hitler because… well, nobody really knows the reasons.

    Submission is always the easier short-term choice. Long-term, however, it just destroys a man’s soul.

     

    8 Responses to “Oxytocin and Conformity – Public and Private”

    1. Mike K Says:

      Oxytocin is a very powerful tool in studying Autism.

      It is by no means a cure, but it is useful in understanding it.

      It’s also far from clear that autism involves a deficiency in oxytocin. A recent study found that oxytocin levels in children with autism varied no more or less than did oxytocin levels in other children. However, the same study suggested that low oxytocin levels worsened social disability in those affected by autism.

      In their Science “Perspective,” Young and Barrett conclude that oxytocin’s greatest potential may prove to be occasional use in combination with behavioral therapy that fosters social skills.

      Finally they propose that the inconsistent results from large studies might be because oxytocin delivered by nasal spray doesn’t reach all areas of the brain. They hold out hope for greater effectiveness from future treatments that stimulate brain cells to release more oxytocin.

      I gave a large number of articles form the literature to a student of mine who was interested in pediatric neurology,

    2. David Foster Says:

      Mike K…so do people with autism generally have depressed levels of oxytocin?

    3. Mike K Says:

      A recent study found that oxytocin levels in children with autism varied no more or less than did oxytocin levels in other children. However, the same study suggested that low oxytocin levels worsened social disability in those affected by autism.

      It’s complicated. Maybe the receptors or some mechanism in the effect of the hormone. Type II diabetes and type I are different mechanisms. Insulin is high in type II and low or zero in type I.

      There is a lot of interest right now in nasal spray application.

      These results indicate a coordination of central and peripheral oxytocin release after stress and after intranasal administration. Although popular, the approach of using peripheral oxytocin levels to approximate central levels under basal conditions is not supported by the present results.

    4. David Foster Says:

      It seems that getting LIkes and Shares on Facebook results in a spike in dopamine, possibly in some cases oxytocin as well:

      https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201205/facebook-and-your-brain

      …and of course you are much more likely to get those Likes and Shares if you post something consistent with the majority opinion aong your friends.

    5. mhj Says:

      This is why the #resistance insists on absolute conformity to the goal of otherizing Trump–any cracks in the facade would leave people to think maybe they have a choice in the matter.

      Of course, when the people trying to create this mental climate are anathema to you (not the case in the experimental work), it boomerangs. Which is why it is quite likely that all the actors and musical celebrity endorsements of Clinton probably helped her run up the score in places she was winning, anyway (CA, NY), where the celebrity culture runs deep, but may have cost her enough votes to lose swings states such as FL, OH, MI, PA, WI, IA. Net, may have gained popular votes but lost electoral votes, the ones that mattered.

      I see all of Trump’s flaws that his enemies point out, but voted for him because (a) Clinton was worse, and (b) if a person is known by their enemies, Trump had/has all the right enemies. Going against THAT crowd has positive psychic value to me, and may even make me too willing to overlook Trump’s shortcomings.

      Heck, if I was running, myself, and found out that Jay Z, Beyonce, George Clooney, Lady Gaga, and Lena Dunham supported me, I would have second thoughts. These people are destroying our culture and tearing us apart, either from conviction or for money or both; if they liked me it would say something very troubling.

    6. David Foster Says:

      Mhj…”Of course, when the people trying to create this mental climate are anathema to you (not the case in the experimental work), it boomerangs.”

      Yes, that is one effect. If your marketing campaign for a new Ford model was based entirely on ads suggesting that anyone who had ever owned or even considered a non-Ford car brand was an evil moron, then you would be pretty much limiting your market to lifetime Ford fanatics.

      But OTOH, in politics the vicious attacks on non-Progs do have the effect of shutting down a lot of speech by people who would just as soon not be insulted, and who may be rationally afraid for the consequences on their careers and their children’s friendships and prospects. This is analogous to covering fire, intended to make the opposing infantry keep their heads down and reduce their effectiveness. By suppressing non-Prog speech, the Left makes people believe that there is more uniformity in support for their causes than is actually the case, and hence this will further drive Public Conformity and probably to some degree Private Conformity as well.

    7. PenGun Says:

      “Neuroscience research suggests that “the discovery that everyone disagrees with you turns out to typically activate the amygdala and the insular cortex, brain regions associated with anxiety, disgust, and unease.”

      Strange. I am just usually reassured that I’m on the right track. ;)

    8. Mike K Says:

      By suppressing non-Prog speech, the Left makes people believe that there is more uniformity in support for their causes than is actually the case, and hence this will further drive Public Conformity and probably to some degree Private Conformity as well.

      But then Trump comes along and a preference cascade forms because all those people realize there is another way.

      “This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related
      issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

      I saw this coming in December 2015.

      Not for certain but as a possibility.